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Empowering Learners, Spring 2005
Extra-Classroom Teaching Handbook

The Importance of Team Teaching/Collaboration Among Extra-Classroom Teachers

Caitlin O’Keefe

Extra-classroom teaching is used to describe a broad range of teaching and learning environments, but often serves as a label to identify teaching that occurs outside of the regular classroom or as a way of describing a teaching and learning experience that extends beyond the scope of the regular classroom. The latter suggests that, while the teaching is taking place within a classroom, it is offering the learner an experience that extends beyond the scope of the regular classroom. This is done by inviting mentors, tutors, and other types of “teachers” into the classroom to provide learners with an opportunity to experiment with material and pedagogy not included in the regular classroom curriculum.

An Introduction to the Importance of Team Teaching

I find it necessary to add to the discourse of collaboration among teachers and of creating communities of sharing based on my observation that urban teachers are often isolated and detached from other teachers and therefore continue the pervasive cycle of isolating and silencing learners in their classrooms. Before I ever entertained a discussion of team teaching for extra-classroom teachers, I began to reflect on my observations of the regular classroom teacher, Mr. Parker, at my first team teaching placement. I gathered from my conversations with Mr. Parker that he felt like he had little or no support from other teachers in the school and administration. Teachers did not take the time to talk with one another constructively about what they were teaching and how they teach it. Teachers in this urban public high school were left to deal with and solve teaching challenges on their own.

The more I thought about, and reflected on, the lack of a support system for teachers like Mr. Parker to express his frustration and get positive feedback from his colleagues, I realized an important connection between Mr. Parker’s isolation as a teacher and the way he conducted his ninth grade English class. The students completed their assignments individually and there was no process of peer revision or collaboration with other students. Because Mr. Parker felt isolated from the rest of the teachers and felt confined to the learning that took place within his classroom, he saw no need to give students the opportunity to share with one another, either. Sharing knowledge within a community of support was absent from Mr. Parker’s teaching pedagogy and consequently, it did not find its way into the students’ learning.

A community of sharing among teachers allows them to feel supported by other teachers in their quest to better serve the needs of their students. In an effective community of sharing, teachers feel comfortable acknowledging what they do not know without feeling embarrassed or vulnerable because it is assumed that everyone in the group faces challenges and also has knowledge to offer the group. Communication, honesty, and openness are key elements of team teaching because it allows each individual to contribute to the wealth of knowledge that is shared by the group. Sharing challenges and difficulties, as well as successful pedagogical strategies will allow teachers to more effectively evaluate pedagogical practices in school and provide a rich array of resources for teachers to use in classrooms.

How does team teaching affect students? Most obviously, if teachers are sharing ideas for successful teaching practices with one another, they will have a wider base of knowledge to bring to the classroom. A variety of pedagogical approaches will be available, and the teacher will have a resource to rely on when the teacher needs additional input or advice in effectively teaching students. Additionally, if a teacher is part of a community of sharing, that teacher is more likely to value the benefits of the support and knowledge that is created in such a community. The teacher who values collaboration, sharing, and peer-oriented learning will make the effort to create a similar community within their classroom. A community of sharing within the classroom allows students to feel safe sharing ideas, concerns, challenges, and successes with peers. Listening to others and respecting differences becomes important and useful in communities of sharing and members feel that the differences and challenges encountered are opportunities to expand learning and understanding. Students learn that their strengths and weaknesses are valuable and that every individual has knowledge to offer the other members of the community.

I have extended my initial observations and reflections of sharing and team teaching to the position of the extra-classroom teacher often the extra-classroom teacher is in the unique position of supporting and supplementing the instruction of the regular classroom teacher with slightly more flexibility concerning curriculum and teaching methods. This discussion invites extra-classroom teachers (whether teaching outside or within a regular school classroom) to explore the concept of extra-classroom team teaching. The ideas introduced here are meant to expand the strategies employed by extra-classroom teachers who are already involved in team teaching, as well as to encourage extra-classroom teachers who have not yet been a part of a team of teachers to find a way to incorporate team teaching into their experience. The methods I suggest in this handbook for effective team teaching are derived from my observations and experience as an extra-classroom team teacher.

Creating a Team

The circumstances of extra-classroom experiences are very different, but teaching teams can form in many different formats. It might be easier and more feasible for extra-classroom teachers who are teaching within a program or system to already have a framework of team teaching in place. But this does not mean that an extra-classroom teacher currently teaching in isolation cannot find other teachers who are sharing a similar experience to collaborate with one another to create a team teaching community. It is often helpful to have a student coordinator who acts a liaison between the team and program directors or regular classroom teachers. The student coordinator can be selected by the program director or classroom teacher, or can be elected by the team of extra-classroom teachers. The role of the student-coordinator is not meant to assume authority or control over the group, but rather to ensure direct contact and clear communication between the extra-classroom teachers and the regular classroom teachers, school principal, program director, and/or college professor. It is also useful for teachers, professors, and directors to be aware of the team teaching process. Periodic input from other experienced educators can be encouraging and extremely helpful for extra-classroom teachers who are interested in feedback about their teaching and team teaching dynamics and strategies.

Addressing Assumptions

My first experience as a team teacher was as a student teacher in an urban high school. As an initiative to build a relationship between students at my college and a local (urban) public high school, I was part of a group of students who were going to be leading (as a group) two ninth grade English classes once a week. With a student coordinator previously designated by the Education Department at my college, the structure for team collaboration was already in place as eight student teachers joined efforts to create a curriculum for a writing project. The team of student teachers was energetic and optimistic, though our previous teaching experience was quite limited. The group of student teachers often discussed challenges we were having in the classroom, but group dynamics were positive and encouraging; a support system existed that allowed the student teachers to communicate their concerns, frustrations, and successes. It seemed that the student teachers shared similar goals and our teaching strategies, though very different, were cohesive within the classroom. However, my positive team teaching experience was significantly challenged the following semester when I again had the opportunity to teach in the same classroom but with different student teachers. I expected and assumed that the structure of the team of student teachers would be very similar to how it had been the first semester, but from the very first meeting I understood that it was going to be a very different collaborative process. From the beginning, the group struggled to communicate with one another, differed in their ideas about the material that should be presented to the students, and also held various perceptions about the role and importance of the team effort. I entered the second semester of collaboration with preconceived notions about how the team would function as a unit and my resistance to exploring other methods of collaboration hindered my ability to be an encouraging and supportive team member.

It might seem obvious that every extra-classroom teacher will bring to the table different (and sometimes opposing) goals and assumptions about their learners and about their roles as extra-classroom teachers. These various perceptions pose a potential challenge for the team, but will result in a rewarding experience when every teacher’s perspective is welcomed and encouraged. Less obvious, however, is the understanding that every teacher will also have a different idea about the purpose and goal of the team teaching collaboration. Not every teacher will desire to put in the same amount of effort or expect the same outcome as a result of the collaboration. This becomes problematic when expectations are not communicated and addressed among team members. Therefore it is essential that extra-classroom teachers express their assumptions regarding how the team will function, make explicit their expectations for the group and its ability to serve the teaching and learning needs of the individual teacher, as well as define what each teacher finds valuable and helpful about working as a team teacher.

Valuing Conflict, Flexibility and Reflection

A discussion of assumptions and expectations might be accomplished in the first group meeting, creating a sturdy framework of support and open lines of communication that will persist throughout the team teaching experience. An effective method for introducing this type of discussion could entail having teachers individually write down their expectations/assumptions/needs for the team and create a list as a group that includes each teacher’s ideas as a way to frame how the group will function in the future. This could also take the form of an ongoing reevaluation of the evolving goals of the team, whether they take the form of individual goals or group expectations. The team might need to reassess whether there are assumptions that were not voiced in the beginning that merit discussion later in the collaborative process.

Part of the way through the second semester, some of the student teachers in my group observed that a split was occurring within the group. The division of the group was a result of people absent from meetings and consequently feeling as though their ideas and opinions were being excluded from the planned curriculum. This required the group as a whole to reexamine how we were functioning as individuals as well as members of a group. A discussion revolving around what we thought was missing from the group as well as individual goals for the classroom was necessary and ultimately transformed how our group worked as a collaborative effort. As a result, planning the curriculum became less of a group effort; instead, meetings became a time to receive feedback and offer input to other teachers regarding lesson plans and interactions with students. While this might not have been how some of the teachers originally envisioned our team teaching experience, the reflection and reevaluation mid-semester allowed for a necessary change in the team teaching process that accommodated the expectations and needs of all the student teachers and ultimately proved to be a positive and valuable experience for the student teachers.

It is essential that group meetings allow time for reflective writing and discussion not only about the teaching and learning that is happening in the classroom, but also within the group of extra-classroom teachers. When all the members have voiced their assumptions and expectations, the group will be able to more effectively foster a team teaching dynamic that is honest and explicit, allowing for productive discussion and collaboration as a group unit. Additionally, it requires significant patience and flexibility to create an effective and productive team teaching experience. It will take an extraordinary amount of effort and flexibility to coordinate schedules and the sharing of materials. Extra-classroom team teachers must be willing to contribute significant time and energy into the team teaching process. Patience will be critical when trying to balance opposing teaching strategies. Teachers must be committed and dedicated to the process of team teaching. The amount of time that must be invested in attending meetings, developing curriculum, and offering feedback to colleagues is significant. Conflicts and differences will arise, but as I have learned in my own team teaching, the moments of conflict and challenge offer an opportunity to learn; if teachers can adapt the collaborative process to their relationships with colleagues, I am convinced that teachers will be able to initiate for their students a similar learning process founded on community effort, sharing and collaboration.

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